Why do Islam in Indonesia feels so different today compared with in the 1980s and 1990s?

People don’t fear change. People fear sudden change. People fear revolutions. People don’t fear evolutions – Simon Sinek

There are approximately 1.8 billion Muslims in the world today, which make up about 24.1% of the world population. Out of the 1.8 billions, most Muslims belonged to 2 big denominations: Sunni (around 1.5 billion people, or 80-90% of Muslims) and Shia (around 170-340 million people, or 10-20% of Muslims). Within the Sunni majority there are 4 big schools of interpretations (madhhab): Hanafi, Hanbali, Maliki, and Syafi’i.

These 4 scholars appeared in the 9th and 10th century, during the Golden Age of Islam, a period of time where intellectual debates were thriving and differences of opinions were the stimulation for growth, not the cause for conflicts. Over time, the school of Hanafi became predominant in South and Central Asia, Hanbali in North and Central Arabia, Maliki in North and West Africa, while Syafi’i in East Africa and Southeast Asia (including Indonesia). Hence, the different “feel” of Islam in these different parts of the world.

For instance, the school of Syafi’i combines the observance of the Prophet’s (PBUH) sunnah (sayings) with modern logic, hence the moderate tendencies and the high degree of assimilation between Islam and local traditions in the practicing countries. By contrast, the school of Hanbali advocates Islamic teachings and way of life back to its purest roots in the 7th century, hence the conservative tendencies of Islam in the practicing countries. This is key, as we shall see later.

In 1932 the descendants of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792) and Muhammad bin Saud (1710-1765) finally merged the 4 areas in Arabia that they have brutally conquered since 1902, to become the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, with the descendants of Saud control the government and the descendants of Wahhab control the religion. This union changed the face of Islam dramatically for the first time after 1300+ years of existence, because the regime crucially captured the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina in 1914-1926, and thus Saudi Arabia became the de facto emperor of Islam.

Why the dramatic change? Like most tribes in North and Central Arabia, the Saudis practice the Hanbali school of thought. But unlike their fellow Hanbali counterparts, their brand of interpretation, Salafi, is on the extreme spectrum of Hanbali, which they repackaged according to the teachings of their spiritual founding father Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (hence, the name Wahhabi. Wahhabism to Salafism is like the customised Leninism, Marxism, or Maoism to the general idea of Communism). So in short, the Wahhabi ideology that they practice is an extreme view on an already conservative interpretation of Islam.

This is where thieves get their hand chopped, public beheading is a normal weekly routine, women must wear niqab, music and art are forbidden, and perhaps most damagingly to Islamic heritage the Wahhabis believe that historical places, monuments, tombs, etc are a source of false idol worshiping (Bid’ah). That’s why a whopping 98% of Islamic historical and religious sites have been destroyed by this regime. The house of the Prophet’s beloved 1st wife Khadijah, for example, is now insultingly a public toilet. Even Mecca that had always been an intellectual hub like Baghdad and Cordoba, where science flourished and scholars from different madhhab come together to discuss all religious matters, changed to become the main hub of only 1 ideology: Wahhabism.

In other words: in less than 100 years in its around 1400 years of existence, the rich, diverse, and highly intellectual Islam have been reduced to become a barbaric, and dumbed down, religion in its land of birth.

But how do all of this affect Indonesia? The Padri war (1821-1837) in Minangkabau was believed to be the 1st entry point of Wahhabism to Indonesia, when 3 people – Haji Miskin, Haji Sumanik, and Haji Piobang – came back home to Indonesia in 1803 from a pilgrimage in Mecca, during the time when Mecca and Medina had just been [temporarily] captured by the Wahhabis (before the Ottomans drove them out again from the holy cities in 1812). These 3 newly-radicalised people, and Tuanku Nan Renceh that was backed by the Padris, began to force the spreading of Wahhabism with the intention of creating a “khilafah” in South Sumatra, which clashed with the local traditionalists, with a full-blown war eventually broke out after the Padris slaughtered most of the local royal family. The royal family then requested help to the Dutch colonial power, and thus because they were fighting against the Dutch, Imam Bonjol (the eventual leader of the Padris) and his gang of extremists forever written in Indonesian history as national heroes.

But aside from Padri war, and DII/TII movement (1942-1962) that wanted to establish its own Islamic state in Indonesia, the Wahhabi penetration into Indonesia had never gain any meaningful traction. Because from the Dutch colonial ruler to 1st president Soekarno all the way to president Soeharto they all made sure that any form of extremism won’t live long in the country. This also remained true when Saudi Arabia discovered oil in 1938, and began to use their huge petrodollar money to boost the spreading of Wahhabi ideology to the world, including (or especially) to Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world.

It was not until the downfall of Soeharto in 1998 and the decision by president Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur) to open the country to any form of religion (in the good intention of religious freedom), that the extremists came back home and a floodgate of Wahhabism started to really spread in Indonesia.

A generous funding from the “guardian” of Mecca and Medina? It’s not hard to see how the spread of Wahhabi can become increasingly rampant in Indonesia, simply because it’s the “ideology from the holy land.” This is achieved through funding to many madrasahs (Islamic school), universities (like LIPIA), mosques, through the many web of charity organisations (such as Al Haramain), the escalating public doctrines and smear campaigns through airtime slots on TV and radio, the news media, the cyber army on social media, and increasingly today through the web of local ustads, celebrity ustads, celebrity influencers and through the peer pressure of their prayer groups (kajian). Gus Dur himself warned us about this Wahhabi penetration in Indonesia 10 years ago, in his book “Ilusi negara Islam”, complete with all the historical timeline, all the names, and the master plan to creep into Indonesian society.

So why do Islam in Indonesia feels so different today compared with in the 1980s and 1990s? Because the extreme conservative version of Hanbali ideology is spreading like wildfire in the country and trying to replace the moderate syafi’i way of life (the one we used to have back in the simpler days).

Hence, many Islamic customs that we never saw before suddenly appear in the past few years, and increasingly dominating our surroundings. Whenever there’s an ustad justifying two dots on the forehead, that’s Wahhabism. Increasingly believe that conventional banking is “riba”, and you left your secure job to sell perfume? Yes, Wahhabi. Don’t believe in the government anymore and fully support the creation of “khilafah”? That’s the Utopian dream of Wahhabi. Women wearing niqab or long hijab and men sporting cingkrang pants? they might not realised that they have succumbed to the peer pressure to “hijrah” from Syafi’i to Wahhabi. They even go as far as attacking those who practice the syafi’i interpretation as kafir (infidel), hence the constant attacks on, and the clashes against, Nahdlatul Ulama (a traditional Syafi’i organisation) in particular.

Gone are the days where ustads were teaching calmly about the religion of peace and tolerance, and the importance of habluminannas, and they are replaced by ustads preaching angrily like Hitler, using hateful rhetoric to make their discriminative points, Wahhabi style.

The Wahhabi stronghold in Indonesia have even penetrated the political scene. PKS, what Gus Dur dubbed as “evolutionary jihadist”, is a Wahhabi political party co-founded by the descendant of one of DI/TII leaders. “Revolutionary jihadist”, on the other hand, is like terror groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS, or the local Jemaat Islamiyah and JAD in Indonesia, which opted for a direct aggression to reach the same Utopian dream, all of whom not coincidentally are also Wahhabi (indeed, the key difference between terrorists and extremists is in the evolution/revolution approach).

Moreover, the now banned HTI is also an evolutionary jihadist based on Wahhabi ideology. Bachtiar Nasir, the head of increasingly influential GNPF MUI, is publicly Wahhabi, while the PA 212 (which evolved from GNPF MUI) reached as high as the role of a king maker in the last presidential election, mobilising the masses for candidate Prabowo-Sandi (which Sandi himself later on admittedly regretted).

And here’s the reality on the ground: Syafi’i tend to be passive, that if people want to learn more about Islam they can come and ask, while Wahhabi are more aggressive in “converting” people, with the help of petrodollar funding, their vast networks, and the fact that they tend to legitimise any means necessary to reach their Utopian dream.

And just in case you’re wondering, Gus Dur considered evolutionary jihad as more effective and more dangerous than revolutionary jihad, because instead of forcing us to comply with their worldview through violence (which would trigger an instant backlash) they are patiently gaining trust, converting one person at a time to come to believe that their ideology is the only true view of Islam, and in what arguably becomes a classic case of Stockholm Syndrome they eventually turn people into missionaries that fight for their cause on their behalf.

And this time around, their penetration to Indonesia’s society seems to be working. You’ve been warned.

Post Script: The good news is, in his 2nd term president Jokowi appointed some powerful names in his cabinet positions, in relation with this problem: For the first time the Religious Affairs Minister position is not occupied by a religious political party but by an ex military general (with the literal mandate to fight radicalism). The chief of police (whom is an expert in terrorism) becomes the Home Affairs Minister. Even presidential rival Prabowo himself became Defense Minister (which now in theory should fight against the very people he used at his presidential campaign). And on top of that, in the Saudi itself crown prince Muhammad bin Salman, the de facto ruler, is undergoing several reforms to modernise the kingdom, including (and crucially) eradicating hardliners. So there is hope.

Additional readings:

What Islam was like during its Golden Age [National Geographic / Victor Palleja de Bustinza]

Saudi Arabia Bulldozes Over Its Heritage [Time / Carla Power]

How Al-Saud stole Islam’s pilgrimage and capitalized a faith [The Huffington Post / Catherine Shakdam]

We have a Saudi Arabia problem, not Islam problem [Mother Jones / Kevin Drum]

Extremism is Riyadh’s top export [Foreign Policy / Farah Pandith]

You can’t understand ISIS if you don’t know the history of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia: the striking resemblance of the rise of ISIS with the rise of Saudi Arabia [The Huffington Post / Alastair Crooke]

The short history of Islam Nusantara, and its struggles against Wahhabism [New Mandala / Keith Loveard]

Jejak Wahabi, dari sayap kanan hingga perang Paderi [BBC Indonesia / Heyder Affan]

Aliran Wahabi dan wajah Islam moderat di Indonesia [BBC Indonesia / Heyder Affan]

Saudi Arabia’s influence in Southeast Asia – too embedded to be disrupted? [The Jakarta Post / Asmiati Malik and Scott Edwards]

How Saudi fund its spread of Wahhabi to Indonesia [The New York Times / Jane Perlez]

The Saudis are coming, via building a university [The New York Review of Books / Margaret Scott]

Salafi movement gains ground in public sphere in Indonesia, via radio stations [The Jakarta Post / Haeril Halim and Fadli]

One reason the Indonesian government is unlikely to present roadblocks to Saudi cultural expansion is its precarious annual Hajj quota [VOA News / Krithika Varagur]

Geliat penyebaran hijrah ala Salafi di Indonesia [CNN Indonesia]

Ilusi Negara Islam edited by Gus Dur